Canada's Stratford puts a theatrical `Mikado' on the road

In the post-D'Oyly Carte era, when performance of Gilbert and Sullivan operettas is left largely to stock and amateur companies or the rare full-blown opera production, a highly theatrical version of ``The Mikado,'' emphasizing the visual and comic elements, is welcome indeed. Such is a version of ``The Mikado'' by Canada's Stratford Festival now on its first tour of the United States. Under the buoyant direction of Brian Macdonald, a longtime Stratford associate director, this ``Mikado'' rollicks along, well within the conventional G&S framework (purists, take note), but also with a physicalized ebullience that does much to amplify the authors' original wit and vigor. Although hardly as star-laden as the rambunctiously theatrical production of ``The Pirates of Penzance'' that Joe Papp mounted at the Public Theatre seven years ago, this ``Mikado'' is a treat for the eye more than the ear. And while some excessively campy performances threaten to swamp the production's delicate directorial balance - a preservationist attitude spiked with irreverence - the original score proves as engaging as ever, and many of the lyrics have been updated to an au courant satirical pungency. Who can resist references to Dr. Ruth and the contras?

True to the festival's tradition of emphasizing costumes rather than sets, the Stratford production artfully conjures the mythical town of Titipu with some appropriately Japanese minimimalism: a lone bonsai tree, a large unfolding fan, a full moon. Across this spartan backdrop, director and choreographer Macdonald sends his choruses twirling and swirling in Susan Benson's understated and updated, yet thoroughly evocative, costumes. If the choruses were occasionally unintelligible, they were effective line dancers (complete with fans) bursting with infectious high spirits.

John Keane and his crystalline tenor quickly arrived to clear the air with his plaintive ballad, ``A wandering minstrel, I.'' Unfortunately, he was also imbued with what is by now a requisite amount of somber-faced silliness as the smitten prince Nanki-Poo masquerading as a minstrel. No matter. Marie Baron is a far more spunky and down-to-earth Yum-Yum than most rapturous Gilbert and Sullivan heroines. Her duet with Keane was affecting, but it was her floor-pounding performance in ``Here's a how-de-do'' that was refreshingly acerbic.

Of course, it is the three male leads who traditionally steal this show. And Richard McMillan prances on with such shameless mugging as the snobbish and eminently corruptible Lord High Pooh Bah that one is initially tempted to simply let him have it lock, stock, and ballad. Fortunately, he settles down in the second act. Or maybe there is simply less of him on the stage, what with the glittery entrance of the Mikado. Avo Kittask is a rubber-faced bit of royalty who all but smacks his jowly chops during his sung rosterings of ``making the punishment fit the crime'' - including lots of fun references to Dear Abby, Standard and Poor's, and Saabs.

But it is Eric Donkin's Ko-Ko that most effectively ballasts this production. His thoroughly actorish performance as the bumbling but well-meaning Lord High Executioner (``I've never killed a horsefly'') not only sets the tone for this production, but is a delight to behold. When he wedges his pudgy body into the branches of the bonsai and punches out his version of ``Willow, tit-willow,'' it is Lou Costello in Japan. And it's a performance that proves there is life - and some genuine laughs - in the old Gilbert and Sullivan yet.

``The Mikado'' goes from Boston to Washington, Baltimore, New York, Detroit, and Milwaukee.

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